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Are insurers ready to cover alternative medicine?

I am a true believer in alternative medicine, having found pain relief from treatments ranging from acupuncture and tai chi to biofeedback. I frequently recommend alternative treatments like acupuncture to friends; however, very few of them ever get to experience the same respite from their chronic pain (and without any negative side effects!) for one primary reason--their insurance plan doesn't cover any kind of alternative or complementary medicine.

But insurers stand to reap large financial benefits if they started covering alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic medicine, massage therapy or yoga classes. Research studies have shown, for instance, that acupuncture can help reduce the frequency and intensity of migraine and tension-type headaches. Additionally, acupuncture, massage and spinal manipulation may be beneficial for chronic low-back pain. And tai chi has been found to improve musculoskeletal pain like fibromyalgia, depression and quality of life.

Although still in the infancy stage, these study results show much promise for complementary and alternative treatments to address chronic pain. Americans are taking note of these benefits, as roughly 38 percent of adults and 12 percent of children use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, amounting to more than $33 billion annual spending. These expenses equal just over 11 percent of the total out-of-pocket healthcare spending, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

If insurers covered these treatments, they likely could help control costs, to boot. Because chronic pain can be resistant to many medical treatments and can cause serious problems, people who suffer from chronic pain are frequent purchasers of healthcare. The NCCM estimates the annual economic cost of chronic pain, including healthcare expenses as well as lost income and productivity, at $100 billion.

To be fair, some insurers already do cover alternative medicine, but usually in a limited capacity. When I was an Aetna customer, I could choose from about 30 acupuncturists in my area who would offer me a discounted rate that was previously negotiated. I saved about $20 each visit. Not bad, but I sure would have preferred that $20 be just a co-pay. 

Certain UnitedHealth plans cover specific forms of complementary and alternative medicine, including acupuncture, yet it's limited to 10 visits a year. At Highmark, a program offers savings of up to 30 percent on complementary and alternative medicine products and services, including fitness center memberships, chiropractic care, tai chi, acupuncture, vitamins and massage therapy.

Although it's probably still too early, I have extremely high hopes that one day I will visit my in-network acupuncturist on a routine basis and she will ask me whether there have been any changes to my insurance each and every time. - Dina

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